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October 7, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Mani Shankar Aiyar

The lesson Sonia learned and Blair was taught

Tony Blair, the Labour Party leader, has been the most popular British prime minister since the Second World War. Perhaps the most popular UK prime minister ever. They did not have polls before the War. And he has just been handed at Blackpool the worst rebuff any Labour Party leader has suffered from his own party conference since Hugh Gaitskell's attempt to delete Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution (relating to the nationalisation of industry) was rejected in 1961.

In elections to the party's national executive committee on Sunday, September 27, four of the six seats were won by hard Left opponents of Blair's New Labour, the highest vote being polled by Mark Seddon, who, as editor of The Tribune, has been the leading ideologue of the kind of socialism which Blair and New Labour regard as Jurassic Park.

There is a marvellous moment in Jeffrey Archer's novel First Among Equals, where a dinner guest mutters about a Labour leader's banquet speech, "Thinks like a Tory. Talks like a Tory. Then why isn't he a bloody Tory?" I am reminded too of a remark I heard Thomas Balogh make at the Labour Club in Cambridge where I was a student the year Gaitskell's attempt to delete Clause 4 was defeated: "How can the Labour Party run a Tory society better than the Tories?"

This is the central dilemma Tony Blair faces as a Labour Party leader. The electorate might be delighted at his dismissal of socialist dogma; his own party is not. British political activists who are socialists will obviously not be with the Conservative Party. But where are British socialists to go other than the Labour Party? Gorbachev climbed to the top of the Communist Party ladder; he then tried to kick the ladder from under him, and brought both himself and the Communist Party crashing down.

Blair, for the moment, seems to have succeeded in kicking away the socialist ladder up which he climbed to become the leader of a socialist party. Till Blackpool, he seemed to be happily ensconced where he was. So was Gorbachev -- till it all collapsed around his ears in August 1991.

This was also the central dilemma facing the Congress conclave at Pachmarhi earlier in September: the language and idiom to be adopted by a party which has "socialism" written into its constitution and which had written "socialism" into the country's Constitution, but whose greatest achievement of the 90s has been to take the country down the path of market friendly economic reforms. Is Manmohan Singh's "New Economic Policy" compatible with the Congress party's old commitment to "socialism"?

One recent adherent to the Congress, who had won his spurs as adviser to a non-Congress finance minister, has, in a post-Pachmarhi article, contemptuously dismissed the "socialist rheoteric" of Pachmarhi, saying that as Pachmarhi set growth, employment and social security as the goals of economic policy, the US economy would, by that definition, be the most socialist economy in the world. That is to grossly miss the point, as Gorbachev did and as Blair is doing. A political party lives by continuity as much as by change. Where change is divorced from continuity, it is like a raft left to drift in the sea; there is movement; yet it is not the inner machine but the outer currents that determine the direction of the movement.

South East and East Asia are discovering this to their cost. They embraced the economic philosophy of others in return for the cast flow this generated. That was called the "Asian Miracle". The miracle is collapsing spectacularly. Indonesia's GDP in dollar terms has fallen by 70% in the past one year, unemployment quadrupling from 22 million to 88 million, that is, nearly half of the working population. In similar dollar terms, the GDP of both Thailand and South Korea has been shaved by one third; that of Malaysia by a quarter. There has been negative growth in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Philippines.

For the first time in nearly two decades, China's rate of growth has been substantially below India's. And please note that 1996-97 was the worst year for India since Manmohan Singh's reforms started -- proving that Manmohanics without Manmohan is like a cart without a horse.

For a political party to survive, especially in a democratic milieu, it is impossible to say, as Deng Xiaoping said, that it does not matter whether a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice. A party like the Congress, which traces its history back 130 years and learned its politics from its Gandhis and Nehrus, means do matter. The ends cannot justify the means. Any old mousetrap will not do. It has to be an indigenous mousetrap designed in-house.

That is why the "socialistic pattern of society" adopted by the Avadi Congress of 1955 was the blueprint of an Indian socialist philosophy. It provided for a mixed economy, without specifying the ratio of the private to the public sector, or the domestic to the foreign sector. That mix could be varied with time and circumstance. Which is why Manmohan Singh's economic reforms could be accommodated into the Congress milieu without violating the party's constitution or offending the party's workers.

What Avadi held to be immutable was the democratic order. Socialism without democracy was held to be communism. Which is why the collapse of the Soviet communist system held no lessons at all for the Congress. The Congress had always held that a dictatorship could not be sustained. Just as the Congress had always held that a market not propped up by a strong state sector, priority to the poor, job security for the employed, and people's participation in decision making (Panchayati Raj) cannot be sustained. Which is why the ASEAN model, however valid for ASEAN, could never be an Asian model or the example for India to follow.

The Pachmarhi Declaration is Sonia Gandhi's affirmation that while India must change as the world changes, the Congress will not turn its back on its past. It was a lesson Tony Blair did not learn. Which is why it has had to be taught to him at Blackpool.

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